Righteous Anger From a Freshman Feminist

Posted on January 15, 2020

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Grass Lake, Michigan, 1979

“Okay, students, I want all the pretty girls to sit in the front row. The rest of you,” he paused, “—just fill in behind.” The command came from the short, stocky man who sat at the large desk at the front of the room.

It was my first day of ninth-grade Algebra at Grass Lake High School. Although it was a sunny, late-summer, blue-sky day, inside of me, a storm was brewing. Even though I was only fourteen, I knew that our teacher, Mr. Palmer, had just sexually harassed us, and it made my blood boil.

It wasn’t a surprise. Grass Lake in the nineteen seventies wasn’t the picture of gender equality, by any means. In fact, my older sisters (Sheree, Class of 1973; Loretta, 1975) had been among the first female athletes to compete on athletic teams at our school—after passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a federal law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Until that legislation passed, the only opportunities my sisters had to play sports in our tiny town was in a recreational league at a church.

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from Retrospect ’79, Grass Lake High School Yearbook

Decades later, I would learn, through discussion with a male classmate who had encouraged his younger sister to pursue the “college-bound” path, that the only (male) counselor at our school simply didn’t discuss going to college with girls—even if they were in the top three students of the graduating class, as I was; he “just didn’t see the point of ‘wasting’ a college education on girls—” but it was my first day of high school, and I believed that education would bring me lots of opportunities, and I intended to go.

“Oh no, you don’t!” I thought as I stood just inside the door to the classroom, and then, before I knew it, I was speaking–loudly. “You can’t do that! This is sexual harassment, and it’s against the law to treat us this way. You can be sued for saying that!”

My classmates froze; everyone went silent and braced themselves for what would happen next, and some may have thought that punishment for me would follow, even though I was within my rights as a student to say what I said.

I don’t remember exactly how Mr. Palmer responded, other than to allow my classmates and me to choose where to sit. After that day, I could never respect Mr. Palmer, because the first lesson he taught us was that he thought that girls were at school for him to look at and to please him—rather than to get our educations!

I was disgusted to think of a grown man treating fourteen and fifteen year old girls as sex objects—as I am disgusted to think of it now, decades later.

I am glad I stood up for my rights as a student, and I hope my classmates learned from my example. Students have human and civil rights: the right to be treated as a student, not a sex object; and the right to learn, free of harassment. One’s education should never include sexual harassment, whether from peers, faculty, or administration. Students attend school to learn, not to look cute for a creepy teacher.

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from Retrospect ’79, Grass Lake High School Yearbook